Norman Mailer and the Cutting Edge of Style/Barbary Shore

From Project Mailer
Norman Mailer and the
Cutting Edge of Style
  1. Introduction
  2. The Naked and the Dead
  3. Barbary Shore
  4. The Deer Park
  5. An American Dream
  6. Why Are We in Vietnam? and
    The Armies of the Night

The first lines of Barbary Shore are a truly startling act of renunciation, of self-denial, or of a kind of stylistic ritual suicide: “Probably I was in the war. There is the mark of a wound behind my ear, an oblong of unfertile flesh where no hair grows. It is covered over now, and may be disguised by even the clumsiest barber, but no barber can hide the scar on my back. For that a tailor is more in order.”

“Probably I was in the war.” This is the greeting offered to his readers, after a three-year silence, by the author of the century’s best war novel. It demands to be read as a hazardously arrogant dismissal of all the popular enthusiasm for The Naked and the Dead, all the convenient and reassuring misunderstandings which may have arisen out of the success of that highly problematic novel. The narrator of Barbary Shore is Mikey Lovett, aspiring novelist, unwilling but compulsive empathizer in the sufferings of others, and amnesiac. World War II, the scene of Mailer’s early triumph, is canceled out of Lovett’s experience, just as Mailer wishes to cancel out our own memory of his war novel, to begin again his exploration of the visionary underpinnings of society. I have said that, in terms of his critical reception, Mailer has seemed to be an exemplary victim of the “first novel” kind of success. Beginning with Barbary Shore, he himself pursues the dangerous and exhilarating course of creating—not a fictional oeuvre—but a series of “first novels,” each one rejecting or redefining the achievements of its predecessors.

Thus Mikey Lovett, amnesiac, is the first in a series of amnesiacs, orphans, and putative bastards who will be the heroes of Mailer’s later books; and as such he is a particularly interesting example of Mailer’s quest for a fictionalized, artificial orphanhood (we might notice here that his fascination with Marilyn Monroe in Marilyn is largely bound up with Monroe’s orphanage origins). If “inauthenticity,” the panicky realization of one’s own conditioned, made-up nature, is the signal theme and problem of most contemporary American fiction, then Lovett’s loss of memory—both personal and cultural memory—is one of the earliest and still one of the most radical versions of that dilemma. To be a novelist—indeed, to live at all—he must literally reinvent the past, reinvent his own selfhood:

It made little difference whether I had met a man or he existed only in a book; there was never a way to determine if I knew a country or merely remembered another’s description. The legends from a decade of newsprint were as intimate and distant as the places in which I must have lived. No history belonged to me and so all history was mine. Yet in what a state.

The intellectual hero of the first half of the twentieth century—T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland, Lafcadio in Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican, Frederick Henry in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms—has witnessed the eruption of chaos into civilized life and tries to find an ethic, a tradition which will allow him to live with that chaos and reintegrate its eruption into the great myth of human continuity. Bellow’s novels, examples of a kind of “pre-postmodernism,” follow largely the same psychic graph, except that for Bellow the eruption of chaos is both more intimate and more violent, while the search for a compensatory intellectual tradition is more desperate and more ironic, self-doubtful. In Lovett, Mailer gives us a figure who is distinctively the intellectual of the post-World War II era, for whom the chaos, the sundering explosion which destroys memory and tradition, is primal, the first fact of his experience. His quest for reunification, then, for a saving image of community, will be a quest performed on a shifting, treacherous landscape—which is the landscape of the mind grown aware of the fictiveness of its own deepest, most immediate impulses and beliefs. If all history—and no history—belongs to him, this is to say that history itself has become style, but style in a moral and political vacuum. The problem for Lovett—and for the novel—is to discover the “right” style for one’s life and at the same time to invent a life in which such a style can make one fully human.

This process, abstract and contradictory as it sounds in the preceding paragraph, is the central and powerful drama of Barbary Shore. Lovett takes a top-floor, shabby apartment in a run-down New York apartment house—a summer lease from a friend who is already a moderately successful writer—to begin work on his book. But the book never gets written, for Lovett finds himself rapidly involved in the lives and the pasts of his fellow boarders: Guinevere, the preternaturally vulgar and sensuous landlady; McLeod, the mysterious and mocking fellow roomer on the top floor; Hollingsworth, an apparently stupid and prurient young man from the Midwest; and Lannie, the sensitive and half—mad, vulnerable and seductive proto-hippie. The action begins at an uncertainly comic level—appropriate for Lovett’s own fumbling, tentative first attempts to construct a personality for himself—centering upon his attraction to the self-advertising Guinevere and the frustrations of his efforts to bed her.

The tone of the opening, in fact, is almost that of Nathanael West’s earlier, absurdist visions of a venal and hypocritical America—probably a deliberate allusion on Mailer’s part, especially in the presence of Monina, Guinevere’s horribly spoiled, knowingly obscene, and constantly interrupting daughter. Guinevere has raised Monina, in an insane fantasy, to be a child star in Hollywood, and indeed, Monina is an obvious and uglier reminiscence of the boy child actor, Baby Adore, in West’s The Day of the Locust. (It is perhaps an even deeper part of the "allusion" that West, born Nathan Weinstein, is another major American Jewish novelist whose career and whose “public” name were a sustained self-denial of the solaces and styles of an established personal and historical tradition.) But West’s vision of America, acerbic as it is, is primarily a satiric one—that is, a vision which allows itself, at the end, at least the terminal satisfaction of the sophisticated man’s laughter at the vulgarity and hopeless confusion of the mass. Satire—whether by Horace, Swift, West, or Lenny Bruce—is a relatively comfortable art, since it is based upon the ultimate intellectual solace, that of being an insider at the expense of the outsiders. Mailer, and Lovett, are finally not at home in the relative comfort of the satirist’s irony. They are both—finally—charitable imaginations, and charity either destroys satire or transforms it into something even darker, richer, and more disturbing. As Lovett learns more about his fellow boarders, he begins to see that they are actually all intimately interrelated in an insidious and subtle plot of revolution and repression, a plot which ends by shattering the comic, satiric poise of the opening pages. Lovett, that is, like a true Mailer hero, watches his world until he finds it changed into a structure of violence and chaos which demands his participation—transcends his own inauthenticity by discovering it to be a version, writ small, of the desperate inauthenticity of the culture around him.

McLeod is at the center of this hidden plot and grows to be a crucial epicenter—almost an alternative hero—of the book. For McLeod, a bitter and self-destructive Irishman, is in fact a former Communist. He has, in despair at the chances for a worldwide socialist revolution, resigned his high (and highly adventurous) position in the party and worked, instead, for a top-secret government agency. But disgusted with his own despair and with the hypocritical policies of the people he has chosen to serve, McLeod betrays that trust, too. He absconds with a “little object,” never more definitely identified, which is nevertheless crucial to the government’s national and international plans. When Lovett enters the story, McLeod has taken up a gloomy exile at the top of the shabby apartment building, where his wife, Guinevere—we eventually learn—acts as his landlady and his perpetual sexual tormentor. Hollingsworth, furthermore, far from being simply an apotheosis of the American inane, is an agent of the government who has been sent, along with the half-mad Lannie, to track McLeod down and force him to return the “little object” to its rightful, if unrighteous, possessors. The crucial section of the novel, then, is a long series of interviews with McLeod, first by Hollingsworth and then by Hollingsworth and Lannie, to all of which Lovett is invited to listen by his hunted friend. These interviews take on a truly Kafkaesque dimension as McLeod’s defenses against returning the little object—his remnants of self—respect, that is—are systematically and cruelly broken down. As McLeod dies his own imaginative death, he deliberately transfers his revolutionary ardor—though oddly mutated—to the intellectual and spiritual tabula rasa that is Lovett. By the end of the novel, when McLeod is killed in a final refusal to surrender the little object, Lovett has become his visionary heir, committed to continue the good fight—not for communism or capitalism—but for the imaginative liberation of men from the murderous official hypocrisies with which they are everywhere strangled. In McLeod’s last act, Lovett is left the little object and himself embarks upon his finally discovered career, not as novelist, but as alienated secret agent, loyal to no cause but that of imaginative liberation, and driven into a lifetime of exile, seclusion, and visionary sabotage.

In many ways, Barbary Shore has all the elements of an exciting, off—center, but finally recognizable political espionage thriller—rather like Kafka as filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. The “little object,” in fact, nearly invisible but ironically fateful for everyone who comes into contact with it, is surely a conscious reminiscence of the celebrated “McGuffin,” the unimportant but critical something which Hitchcock has described as a central element of plot construction in his films.

Even as a thriller, Barbary Shore is oddly flawed. After the polish and poise of The Naked and the Dead, this book is tentative, unsure of its tone, roundabout in developing its central situation, and filled with clumsy, prosy longeurs, such as the section where McLeod, in his final interview with Hollingsworth, insists upon giving an interminable speech justifying his own career and his idiosyncratic revolutionary theory. One can well understand the disappointment of those critics who read Barbary Shore immediately after Mailer’s first novel, for it is as if the talent has somehow gone flaccid, become homiletic, grown not more assured and mature but, perversely, younger, more callow.

In the context of Mailer’s later work, though, we can see the novel as a ruin but a brilliant ruin, one which holds our interest precisely because it introduces that killing conflict between ideology and nar.rative which is to characterize all the author’s later struggles. For a book published in 1951, at the center of the McCarthy menace and the Red scare which was to pervert so much of American life during the last two decades, it is an admirably courageous political and imaginative manifesto. Indeed, if one of the book’s plots is the political consciousness—raising of Lovett to the point where he abandons his career in fiction for a career in political ac.tivism, the book itself is Mailer’s own imitation of the same con.version, a largely successful attempt to turn the stuff of the novel into the stuff of political action—an attempt which, as we shall see, has remained one of his perennial concerns.

The transfer of energy from the old revolutionary McLeod to the young amnesiac Lovett, furthermore, may be read almost allegorically as Mailer’s realization of his position vis à vis the traditions of earlier American and European modernism. It is an imaginative shorthand for his sense that, for the contemporary writer, the essential quest is not finding new directions for fiction, but consolidating the achievement of Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, et. al., into a viable, eclectic, and above all civilizing—which is to say, liberating—political sensibility. We have already observed that the first words of Barbary Shore repudiate the fame earned by The Naked and the Dead. But, more importantly, Lovett’s abandonment of fiction for action is a powerful metaphor for Mailer’s decision, from Barbary Shore onward, to eschew the consolations of narrative elegance for the harder, embattled vision of writing as action.

The novel Lovett is trying to write—and which never gets written—is in this regard a crucial element in the book. He describes its vague, almost parodistically Kafkaesque, plot early in Barbary Shore:

I intended a large ambitious work about an immense institution never defined more exactly than that, and about the people who wandered through it. The book had a hero and a heroine, but they never met while they were in the institution. It was only when they escaped, each of them in separate ways and by separate methods, that they were capable of love and so could discover each other.

It need hardly be pointed out that the plot of Lovett’s projected novel is exactly the plot of his own experience in Barbary Shore, with the important difference that Lovett’s “escape” will involve no romantic union with a wished—for lover. Life—such is Mailer’s continual hope and despair—will eventually realize and transcend the fictive imagination of life. But before Lovett can become the hero of his own intended novel, before he can transcend the forms of fiction for the forms of life, he must undergo a purification which forces him to abandon his trust in the blandishments of fiction, realize his own inauthenticity against the murderous backdrop of fifties politics. It is McLeod who forces him to such a purification. The man without a memory, for whom all history is a universal fiction, is forced to invent the “real” history of his era:

McLeod’s words returned to me then, and more. Out of that long day and longer night, I could be troubled again by the talk we had had on the bridge and the memory which followed it. . . . What, I heard myself asking in the silence of the room, are the phenomena of the world today? And into that formal void my mind sent an answer, the tat to the tit; I could have been reciting from a catechism.

The history of the last twenty years may be divided into two decades: a decade of economic crisis, and a decade of war and the preparations for a new war.

The answer to his question leaps into Lovett’s mind as if “from a catechism” because it is, of course, a standard formula of the catechisms of Marxism and socialism of the period. But, precisely because Lovett has to rediscover that formula from the midst of his own personal void, the crudely predigested nature of its assertion is transformed; socioeconomic cliché becomes visionary politics, through the mediacy of fiction. There is, in Barbary Shore, no better or more brilliantly realized instance of Mailer’s ability, when writing at the top of his form, to use the novel as the one, unique, indispensable medium for his full-scale redefinition of society and its discontents. Stanley Edgar Hyman persuasively argues, in The Tangled Bank, that the underlying dramatic form of Marx’s Capital is that of the Victorian melodramatic novel. It is tempting to regard Mailer’s fiction, then, as an inversion—or reversion—of the processes of Marx’s imagination, an identification of politics and economics as the underlying form of melodrama itself.

At least, Mailer seems unimpeachably right in his insight that the horrors of the McCarthy years are important not so much for their specific history of demagoguery and psychic brutalization, but rather as an overture to the years of imaginative warfare which succeeded them. Richard Nixon, whose career oddly parallels the novelist’s, may or may not have been in Mailer’s mind when he created the figure of Hollingsworth, that self-satisfied, but deeply insecure, moralizing, but totally unscrupulous Inquisitor of the middle class; but the inadvertence of the portrait is, if anything, only an earnest of the prophecy’s accuracy. The “new war” which Barbary Shore envisions is not one between countries or continents, but one, perhaps the final one, between The Naked and the Dead of the spirit; between those ready to sacrifice everything—even their talent—for the construction of a new, humane society and those for whom the impotence of an exhausted political and imaginative convention is a comfortable and desirable habitation.

To say this much about Barbary Shore is to say that it is an anarchic novel. Mailer’s alternatives of imaginative life and imaginative death have none of the subtle interplay—none of that sense of the saving norm—which characterize their struggle in the work of Saul Bellow or, later, John Barth. Like Thomas Pynchon, his greatest heir, Mailer’s is a mind at home only among absolutes, which may account for the immense power and the sometime puerility of both Mailer and Pynchon. From Barbary Shore on, Mailer’s own imaginative war is a life-and-death struggle which, in its very violence, frequently ruptures either the fabric of his fiction (which often cannot bear the ponderous weight of his half-emergent ideas) or the consistency of his ideas (whose frequent simplicity is undercut by the subtlety of his fictive imagination). In Barbary Shore this struggle is almost allegorically caught by the strange rivalry between McLeod and Lovett for the elusive, vulgar, outrageous, and seductive Guinevere. Her name itself, the name of the great adulterous queen of Arthur’s court, is surely designed to indicate something of her symbolic weight. A bitch very like the bitch goddess of the novel itself so often described by Mailer, Guinevere is also, in some way, America itself—in her absurd and pathetic movie fantasies, in her neurotic prurience and ostentation, and in her deep, almost metaphysical yearning for sexual transcendence. Neither the old intellectual longing for peace nor the young failed novelist longing for action can ever quite possess her. If, as I have suggested, Mailer’s blustering often masks an intensely shy self-consciousness, we can see from the struggle for the impossible Guinevere that his celebrated, orgasmic sexual mythology also masks a deep fear of impotence, a suspicion that the best and most fully imagined structures of the soul’s freedom may not, after all, be adequate to win that freedom, that more-than-ecstatic moment of release.

The book’s anarchism, then, so corrosive of Mailer’s own skill as a maker of fiction, is nevertheless one of his most valuable achievements here and in his later novels. It establishes, as no other writer before him had managed to establish, the fully apocalyptic tone of a terminal conflict between the possibilities and entrapments of civilization, which has become the distinctive tone of major American fiction in the last two decades.